The title of Gina Frangello’s debut memoir, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, can be read as an imperative: to destroy with the body a space created, inhabited, and processed by the self. This idea invites a certain scrutiny: why would anyone be moved to create such a rupture or cause such devastation? It’s a central question that Frangello interrogates throughout her book, but her paradigm is not solely about loss or a break. Indeed, the attention and nuance which Frangello gives to her life story and the gendered issues of care and livelihood generate multiple readings that dismantle, strip, and rebuild readers’ understanding of the present. In the end, Frangello is not simply asking us to blow our own houses down but instead to consider how they are built and what they encompass, while also imagining a new edifice from which to move forward.
I spoke with Frangello about her new memoir, issues of care under COVID-19, and how she imagines the future of feminism.
Where did the idea of a memoir come from?
I have written personal essays for many years, and I was the Sunday editor at The Rumpus, where I primarily edited essays. I had always worked in short form, though; I had no intention of publishing a book-length work. But as I was going through a lot of things, I found myself unable to write fiction. I had a novel that came out in 2016, but that book had been sold in 2014. In 2015, the shit of my life started hitting the fan, and I found I just couldn’t write fiction anymore. There’s usually a part of my brain that is just left on for constantly obsessing about my fictional characters and hearing their dialogue. And it was suddenly gone, and so I started to feel like I needed to write to sort of get through the firewall. At first, I didn’t know whether I would actually turn it into a book or just some disparate essays and some things I kept for myself.
But my writing group in Chicago, which is an amazing group of women—Rachel DeWoskin, Rebecca Makkai, Emily Gray Tedrowe, Thea Goodman, Dika Lam—read some of the material and really encouraged me to turn it into a book. My husband, Rob, also felt like there was a book there, and so you know, I just kept going. The original version Counterpoint bought was quite different than this. It was much more of an essay collection and it was out of linear order.
It’s clear this book is, excitingly, doing a lot of different genre work! Could you tell me a bit more about this framing?
Some of my favorite memoirs in the world have been hybrid cultural criticism or meditations on other things besides just the author’s personal experience: Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, for example, and the work of Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson. My husband’s memoir was also a kind of meditation on the nature of memory—reaching beyond solely personal narrative. I used to teach The Adderall Diaries by Steve Elliot all the time; I liked the integration of outside material, a real murder trial that everyone was aware of, working in tandem with Steve’s personal, interior life.
One of the most common reasons that I’ve rejected work as an editor—even when a piece is beautifully written—is because it doesn’t give an outside lens to more than just the writer’s experience. I tend not to be as compelled by it. For me and my book, the outside lens was about capturing this intergenerational, interdisciplinary dialogue about women’s roles. I wanted to use my life as a lens to view those things. My original version of this book had a fair amount of cultural criticism, feminist theory and history, but I was afraid that no editor would like that. Luckily for me, my agent was supportive and then, when my editor bought the book, he really wanted me to lean into it instead of away.
When reading, I felt like there was this idea that many feminist successes are actually just illusions of things that actually don’t exist or, rather, don’t exist in permanence. I was wondering, was this part of your project?
Yes, I mean, absolutely! For me, I grew up in poverty; I grew up in a neighborhood where feminism was not part of the vernacular, even though it was basically during the height of second-wave feminism. It was the neighborhood that time forgot, like so many other neighborhoods are too. I grew up with this sort of vague inkling from things like TV and books that there was a struggle out there for women to be viewed as fully human or having agency in our own lives. I saw the way that that was enacted too in my neighborhood, time and time again, whether in minor ways, or whether in major ways like gang rapes and murders. Like a lot of kids who spend their youth trying to get out of wherever they’re from, I imagined that on the other side of that fence, everything was going to be roses and sunshine. And for a while I was actually able to live under that illusion and believe it. I was under a delusion, though, that I had attained that equality. It was only in my 40s when I realized how much, despite my lifelong feminism, I had been participating in stereotypical gender roles in ways that had limited my ability to take care of myself, take care of a family, and have personal agency. All of these things came as a shock to me because I had been believing one thing while sort of living another thing without letting myself realize it.
What does real liberatory politics look like? Is there a difference between transgression and liberation?
I think that there is a difference. Liberation maybe always involves transgressing certain norms, but I think the idea of liberation is that the transgression is about not believing in the way things are done and believing you have a better way, so liberation is inclusive of transgression but transgression isn’t necessarily always inclusive of liberation. We can transgress in destructive ways too, and both genders do. There is definitely a sense that men are forgiven for transgressions much more easily than women: the slightest hint of contrition is often seen as almost heroic in a man. Among women, if you’re a mother, you’re judged more harshly by far, especially if you are above a certain age. That’s definitely still in our culture—actually, maybe more in our culture than say in the 70s, before the backsliding of feminism. It’s taken until the last five years or so to return to the mainstream, and so many women of my generation really came of age during the backlash. Kim Brooks, who’s a Chicago writer, has talked about how there’s been a lot of loosening of the ways in which younger women are allowed to behave or or transgress, and yet, there’s the idea that, when you hit a certain age, you’ll get married, you’ll have children, and it’ll all be over now. Now you’ll just be good and you’re supposed to be satisfied that the culture says, especially if you’re a white, married, middle-class or affluent mother, that some light of virtue shines from you…but also, your inner life is expected to just kind of stop.
I don’t mean that middle-aged moms don’t have active social lives and active professional lives; but, it’s sort of like we are expected, particularly after motherhood, to stop changing. Everything becomes focused on this idea that you’ve grown up and are done growing. That same pressure is just not placed on men, or if it is, it’s on their professional successes, not on their having to remain both flawlessly moral and psychologically static. And I was interested in exploring that in my writing. But also it was really important to me not to equate all transgressions with liberation—I even wrote in my author questionnaire for my publisher that the take-away of my book is not that adultery is feminist, so go break those patriarchal rules, ladies, and have an affair! Rather, I just want to admit, to document for readers who may be struggling with similar issues, that many of us have acute needs that stand against the idea of how we should behave. People fall in love; people fall out of love; people may go through acute changes following difficult times, and may show more impulsive judgment. Being a woman in your 40s with three children doesn’t make you immune to that; it doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped being a real person and part of being a person is sometimes doing things that you regret, or that you don’t quite regret even though you know they were morally regrettable. The liberation to follow your own impulses and your own needs, while also recognizing the harm that you do to others through certain transgressions, was a tension I was trying to explore in the book, and I believe it’s a tension that happens to be particularly explosive for women over a certain age and for mothers.
What do you hope readers will focus on? What do you hope they’ll take away from your book?
Much of the focus, in terms of interviews I’ve given about the book, has had to do with issues of adultery and infidelity—and I get it, there’s a salacious aspect to those issues. For me, though, that was always only a part of a much larger picture of the things I wanted to examine, and infidelity and divorce are no more central to me than, say, the paradoxes around being a part of a sandwich generation: caring for parents while also caring for children. I also wanted to look at the economic disempowerment of women—also, how we view women who have been sick or who have had any disability, temporary or permanent. Middle-aged women often talk about feeling increasingly invisible as they age, and once you’ve been sick or disabled, you’ve really sort of jumped the shark in terms of how the culture strives to erase your individuality, your sexuality, your continued evolution and inner needs and even your idiosyncratic personal demons. I think people with disabilities, sick people, poor people—there are a lot of populations in this country who have essentially been denied personhood. Actually, more people by far than those who are granted it easily, and whose identities within the patriarchy are classified the norm, the organic, even when they aren’t. Sometimes we try to deny populations by demonizing them, and other times, paradoxically, we try to erase them by slapping a faux saintly martyrdom on them, as I think happens with regard to our perception of both mothers and sick people. But personhood isn’t just saintly, it’s messy.
I strongly hope that women in the younger generation won’t internalize that it’s the role of middle-aged women to simply keep harmony and to keep families together and to keep everybody else happy all the time, regardless of the cost to themselves emotionally. What I wanted to explore at heart was our unfair expectations of women within a family unit and the way the outside culture has served, basically from the beginning of time, to corral women into stereotypically gendered roles that are limiting and yet as someone who has three children I adore, and who was extremely close to my parents, and who is now married for the second time, I also believe we all carry genuine moral obligations and commitments to those we love. Both of these things are true, and there is a tension in that without easy solutions, and it’s in that tension that I wanted to forge a narrative to put those difficult questions on the table, not to answer them.
This feels like an incredibly timely book for giving credence to not only the absence of social structure for women’s equity but, also, to the emotional structures that weren’t visible before the pandemic. Indeed, it’s not only an assumption that caretaking responsibilities will be handled by women, it’s a functioning norm.
Yes, I mean most of the women who have been forced out of the workplace didn’t necessarily have jobs that were eliminated. It was that when children weren’t being sent to school, a woman couldn’t be in two places at one time. This global pandemic has really shown a lot of the holes in many aspects of our society, from the low compensation of many essential workers, to the gender inequity in income and resources, to the house of cards that is our medical system.
It was the way COVID has specifically impacted women economically that made me decide to donate my royalties from the book to Deborah’s Place, which is a Chicago organization that helps women facing homelessness. I wanted to be able to contribute to a broader population of women than just those who may be interested specifically in my book. We all need to be more concerned about where other people are in our power hierarchies in this country. That’s been grotesquely visible forever, not just in the past five years, or since the pandemic, but I think things in the Trump presidency and as a result of a global virus—more people are waking up to inequities that have always been there.
We in the United States claim to value family so much, but we do little to support families. We don’t take care of people medically. We don’t back women being able to care for their children and still work to support them economically. In fact, we actively collude as a culture to make these things mutually exclusive: if you don’t have the money to pay for childcare, your minimum wage job and need for your kids to be cared for outside the home basically cancel each other out economically. During the Trump presidency so many women became born again feminists, and the younger generation started embracing feminism more fully conscious of the intersections of class and race with gender. But, I think that we’re only at the tip of the iceberg of what needs to happen.
Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason
By Gina Frangello
April 6, 2021
Clancey D’Isa is a Daily Editor at Chicago Review of Books and the Director of Strategy and Development for the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.